With 54 different ethnic groups coexisting, Vietnam is a multiethnic nation. Kinh people, the majority, who comprise 82 million people or 85.4% of the country’s population, and the remaining 53 groups of – ethnic minority (EM) people make up the remaining 14.12 million, or 14.6%.1 EM peoples reside in large areas, except for the Cham, Chinese, and Khmer ethnic groups residing in the plains. Most EMs live in mountainous, highland, and remote regions, concentrated along the northern and western borders of the country.
Most ethnic minorities still maintain traditional beliefs, worship polytheism – following animism concepts and worshiping according to traditional customs – often stated as non-religious – with 83.4% of the EM population, and only 16.6% follow specific religions.2
Before 1990, only a small number of EMs practised religions, mainly the Khmer who followed Theravada Buddhism; the Cham who followed Brahmanism and Islam; some ethnic groups in the Central Highlands (Ba Na, Xo Dang, Gia Rai) and some in the Northwest (H’Mong) who followed Catholicism; the Dao who followed Protestantism. Over time, religions gradually penetrated EM areas, forming religious communities.3 As of 2019, the number of EM religious followers in Vietnam has increased significantly. Currently, 3,025,174 people from 33 EM groups are religious followers. These people are distributed mainly in Buddhism (1,448,366 followers), Catholicism (548,130 followers), Protestantism (874,359 followers), Islam (85,452 followers), and other religions (69,592 followers.4
According to the geographical distribution across the country, there are four ethnic minority communities with unique features in religion that are worth highlighting:
First, the Khmer EMs in the Mekong Delta follow Theravada Buddhism. As of 2020, there were nearly 1.3 million followers, more than 7,000 monks, practising in 462 temples, mainly in the South Western region.5
Second, the EM community in the Central Highlands follows Catholicism and Protestantism. In 2017, there were 49,581 EM Catholics in this area. There were also 639,990 Protestants (not to mention 20,100 Protestants who are Kinh) practising in 331 branches and 1,742 group points (more than 12 times higher than before 1975) of more than 30 sects of Protestant denomination.6
Third, EM communities in the North West (including northern mountainous provinces) follow Catholicism, Protestantism and Buddhism. As of 2018, there were 412,945 Buddhists, 479,644 Catholics, 213,913 Protestants (mainly the H’Mong, the Dao and a few other ethnic groups).7
Fourth, the Cham community in 24 provinces and cities follows two religions: Islam and Brahminism. The Cham, following the Brahmin religion, are 66,515 people, concentrated in 2 provinces of Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan and a few provinces in the SouthEast region. Islam community is divided into two branches – Cham Islam and Cham Bani. Cham Islam has about 30,000 people in An Giang, Hochiminh, Tay Ninh, Dong Nai, Ninh Thuan, Binh Thuan provinces, while Cham Bani has 50,095 followers, concentrated mainly in Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan provinces.8
Besides the religions recognized by the Government, many strange and new religious phenomena appeared among the EM communities in Vietnam, mainly in the Northern mountainous areas and the Central Highlands. In particular, the phenomena in the Northern regions include Duong Van Minh, Pha Toc, San Su Khe To, Se Chu Ha Ly Cha (Xe A), Je Sua, Ba Co Du, Eternal Salvation, etc. The Central Highlands region has phenomena such as Ha Mon, Charismatic Renewal, Dega Protestant, Amí Sara, Po Khap Brau, Jesus Christ’s Cross (Cross, Lord of the Rising Sun), Evangelical Church of Christ Vietnam, Vietnam and USA Lutheran Union Church, etc.9
Over the last decades, the Government of Vietnam has recognized hundreds of affiliated religious organizations among EM communities (most of which are Protestant and Catholic organizations). As for the “strange” and “new” religious phenomena, the Government is cautious in monitoring, managing and licensing activities, sometimes causing controversies over religious freedom.
- 1. CEMA & GSO.2020. Results of the 53 ethnic minorities’ socio-economic situation census 2019. Accessed in August 2023.
- 2. Ibid
- 3. Vietnam Government Committee for Religious Affairs. 2021. Materials for communication of policy and laws on religions and beliefs. Accessed in August 2023.
- 4. CEMA & GSO.2020. Results of the 53 ethnic minorities’ socio-economic situation census 2019. Accessed in August 2023.
- 5. Vietnam Government Committee for Religious Affairs. 2021. Materials for communication of policy and laws on religions and beliefs. Accessed in August 2023.
- 6. Ibid
- 7. Ibid
- 8. Ibid
- 9. Hoang Thi Lan.2020. Religious life and beliefs in ethnic minority areas in Vietnam. Political Theory Publishing House, Hanoi 2020, p. 136-156. Accessed in August 2023.